In these hard economic times, who wouldn’t like to win $500,000? Heck, I’d like to win half a million no matter what the economy is doing!

And that’s exactly what Russell Quantz hoped would happen when he entered one of the biggest contests in Canada, the Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes.

How does it work? You can sign up online. Or if you take out a Reader’s Digest subscription, you get the magazine in the mail. And along with it, come letters about the company’s sweepstakes. And brochures, advertising products for sale — like CD’s, books and DVD’s.

Now, you don’t have to buy the products to play the sweepstakes, but we’ve learned their marketing tactics have left a lot of Canadians confused.

Like Russell Quantz, of Claresholm, Alta. He thought the more products he ordered, the better his chance of winning the sweepstakes. And no wonder. The letters from Reader’s Digest talked about a “completed cash release confirmation,” “cash guaranteed for award…” and “a prize reference code.” And the envelopes were stamped with words like “urgent,” “reply immediately,” “don’t delay!” He thought that meant he was days away from this $500,000 dream.

Trouble is, Quantz spent almost $7,000 chasing that dream — a bill with Reader’s Digest so big, he couldn’t pay it. And he’s not the only one who’s gone into debt thinking they were about to get rich. We’ve heard from many people saying they feel misled by the company’s marketing. One Canadian family has even filed a class action lawsuit against Reader’s Digest Canada after a family member spent $8,000 on products.

South of the border, Doug Walsh has heard plenty of stories just like Quantz’s. Walsh works in the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. He was part of a crackdown against the American arm of Reader’s Digest. Thirty-one other states joined in, forcing Reader’s Digest U.S. to change its marketing tactics. Now, in the U.S., every letter from Reader’s Digest has to include a separate piece of paper spelling out in BIG print that people don’t have to buy products to play the sweepstakes. And Reader’s Digest has to write any customer who spends more than $1,000 in a six-month period — and tell them they don’t have to buy products. There are other consumer protections, too.

But in Canada, it’s business as usual. Reader’s Digest Canada declined an interview request and instead sent us a letter. Its main point — its rules are perfectly clear. By the way, those rules are typed in fine print so small you practically need a magnifying glass to read it.

It’s all made Quantz doubt the Reader’s Digest motto: Canada’s “Most Read, Most Trusted” magazine.

More at
Protect yourself and family from spending money on sweepstakes

– Erica Johnson is a journalist and co-host of CBC News: Marketplace, Canada’s award-winning consumer affairs show. CBC News: Marketplace airs each Friday night at 8:30 p.m. (9 p.m. NT) on CBC Television.

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